Unions may be united in working to re-elect President Barack Obama, but their leaders also are trying to repair bitter divisions over his rejection of an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.
Trade unions representing workers who stand to benefit from thousands of new construction jobs from the Keystone XL pipeline are furious at other unions that joined environmentalists in opposing the project.
AFL-CIO leaders hope to smooth tensions at their executive council’s annual winter meeting that starts Monday in Orlando, Fla.
The issue reflects a decades-old conflict between union leaders who believe creating jobs is paramount and others who are more strongly aligned with progressive groups on environmental and social causes.
After the White House blocked the pipeline in January, Laborers union president Terry O’Sullivan said he was “repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women.”
His harsh words were directed at groups such as the Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union, which said the risk of possible oil spills and environmental contamination outweighed the benefit of new jobs.
Several larger unions, including the Communications Workers and Auto Workers, also jumped in with praise for Obama, agreeing with his administration’s arguments that a quick deadline forced by Republicans didn’t provide enough time for a fair review.
O’Sullivan was livid that unions whose members had no jobs to gain or lose from the project would make their opposition public while construction unions struggling with 17 percent unemployment in the industry are desperate for any jobs.
The split led the AFL-CIO to take no public position on the pipeline. Leaders are expected to discuss the need for solidarity and how to tone down tensions when unions can’t agree.
“I think discussion is always good,” said Larry Cohen, the Communications Workers’ president. “You have to treat disagreements with respect. You have to work hard for unity.”
Cohen has no regrets about siding with Obama. He said his union was not specifically against the pipeline but merely opposed to the Republican “ultimatum” to shorten the time line.
He sees room for unions to disagree, especially in areas he doesn’t consider central to the labor movement’s core philosophy.
“On the issues that make or break the labor movement, I don’t think the pipeline is one of them,” he said. “We think the core of the movement is bargaining and organizing rights.”
O’Sullivan has a different perspective.
“If there’s legislation or a project that’s good for another union, and my members don’t have equity in the work, I’m going to be supportive or I’m going to say nothing,” he said.